Microsoft Releases Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview

One app to rule them all. The software giant begins fleshing out its universal Windows app ecosystem by releasing a preview version of the smartphone OS to developers.

Microsoft today delivered on an important part of its universal Windows app strategy.

The company announced that beginning April 14, developers can update their own phones to run Windows Phone 8.1, allowing them to leverage several of the new features that the company officially unveiled earlier this month at the Build conference in San Francisco.

Cliff Simpkins, Windows Phone product manager, said in a blog post that along with the recently released Visual Studio 2013 Update 2 Release Candidate (RC), the preview for Microsoft's latest smartphone operating system offers developers "everything they need to start building and testing Windows Phone apps and universal Windows apps."

To participate, developers must meet one of three criteria. Interested developers must be registered with the Windows Phone Dev Center or the Windows App Studio. Alternately, informed Simpkins, the preview will work if a "phone is developer unlocked (which anyone can do using the developer phone registration tool, which is included as part of the Windows Phone tooling)."

Universal Windows app development was a major theme during this year's Build. The software giant showed off new tools that enable developers to target multiple Windows devices (Windows OS PCs and tablets, Windows Phones and even the Xbox) with a single app.

Microsoft is "taking a huge step forward in what we call platform unification," Soma Somasegar, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Developer Division, told eWEEK's Darryl K. Taft during the event. "Whether you are running Windows on a PC or a laptop, or whether you are running Windows on a slate, or whether you are running Windows on a phone, you can now use a concept we call Universal Project in Visual Studio to build one application where you literally share 90 percent of the APIs and a lot of your code and build different heads for the different form factors."

Today, the company is allowing developers to see how well that vision translates into a real-world smartphone experience.

PC-based emulation, while handy, can't account for all of the capabilities offered by Windows Phone hardware, including a camera, Bluetooth connectivity and near-field communication (NFC). Stressing the importance of testing on actual hardware, Simpkins added that other scenarios in which emulation falls short include "app-to-app communication (when integrating with third-party apps that you need to install from the Store) or using phone capabilities like voice."

The Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview also includes a major crowd-pleaser at Build: Cortana.

Microsoft's Halo-inspired, Bing-powered digital assistant technology is part of a new reference app called MSDN Voice Search. Describing the app as "very simple and straight-forward," Simpkins said it offers "the vast MSDN documentation library to you from the Cortana experience." Once it is installed, developers can "ask 'MSDN, what are universal Windows apps?' while in Cortana and she'll launch the MSDN Voice Search app" and help them get answers, he added.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...